By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn beat LSU 78-74 Wednesday giving coach Bruce Pearl career win No. 500.
"For Auburn to rescue me and get me back into coaching, back into my ministry and giving me this Auburn program, this opportunity, has been a great blessing," Pearl said.
"I stress about the fact that we're not winning faster. We're still a young team and we still have lots of challenges. I still think this is a team that can be in the postseason. But it's going to be tough. It's an absolute grind, this conference schedule."
While Auburn's players put on orange "500 wins" t-shirts at midcourt, Pearl walked into the stands to hug his family.
"I'm really glad they didn't have to hide this banner in the closet for a few weeks," Pearl joked to reporters after the game, seated in front of a "500 wins" backdrop. "My daughter came in from Atlanta. I had some friends come in from Evansville, who were dear friends of mine when I was at Southern Indiana. Your family and everybody else makes a bigger deal about this."
Auburn had seven dunks, including one from Horace Spencer in the final minute to seal the win.
Auburn got balanced scoring - five players in double figures.
Anfernee McLemore scored a career-high 11 points, making all four of his field goals.
"I was glad I had the opportunity to help Coach Pearl get his 500th win," McLemore said. "Going in, we didn't emphasize that it was his 500th, but we made sure we paid a lot of attention on defensive rebounding. It was a great opportunity."
Aaron Epps led LSU (9-8, 1-5) with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Pearl's decision to go big - starting the 6-8 Spencer alongside 6-11 Austin Wiley - to counteract LSU's pair of 6-10 starters paid off with 44 points in the paint to LSU's 42.
"We started Horace at power forward. He had not played there at all," Pearl said. "I think it really helped us win the game. It was a gamble. It paid off."
"Coach wanted more defense and rebounding," said Spencer, who led Auburn with 7 rebounds. "Coach Person said, 'Thirty years from now, you'll look back on the celebration.' Not many people can be involved in that."
Ronnie Johnson's layup and free throw gave Auburn an 8-point cushion, 73-65 with 2:08 remaining before LSU threatened yet again.
Auburn made 19 of 22 free throws, a significant improvement over recent outings.
Pearl spread the minutes evenly among his nine-player rotation, with no one playing more than Dunans' 28 minutes.
Wiley's dunk gave Auburn a 10-point lead early in the second half at 44-34.
TJ Dunans' steal and slam made it a 12-point lead moments later.
Back-to-back 3's by Bryce Brown gave Auburn a 15-point cushion, 57-42.
LSU used a 9-0 run to pull within 2, but Dunans scored to preserve Auburn's lead.
Auburn used a 15-0 run late in the first half to take a 35-32 halftime lead.
Mustapha Heron hit Auburn's first 3-pointer but the Tigers made only one more 3 in the half, shooting 2-for-13.
Heron scored 11 in the first half. His layup gave Auburn a 29-28 lead. Heron has reached double figures in each of Auburn's 18 games, a freshman record.
The Tigers overcame an 11-point first-half deficit by scoring 20 points in the paint and committing only three turnovers in the half, 11 in the game.
Auburn's homestand continues Saturday at 3 p.m. against Alabama.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer